Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Palaeontologist

April 26, 2012

"Man, when he enters the world, is naturally led to inquire who he is, whence he comes; whither he is going; for what purpose he is created..." So wrote Carl Gustav Linnaeus in 1788 and it is very true, although the ultimate questions remain as elusive as ever. At present, many prominent scientists hold that a belief in biological evolution inevitably leads to a negation of religion, and that if common sense prevailed, God would be seen as a delusion and humanity would be all the happier for it. For Richard Dawkins, God and science do not mix, and religion of any kind is superstition. Conversely, there is still an alarming level of support for creationism. Robert Asher, a vertebrate palaeontologist, does not agree with either stance, as he makes clear in this admirably fair, balanced and erudite book. As a reviewer, I have no axe to grind: I am simply an evolutionary palaeobiologist; I am not anti-religious, nor do I accord with any particular doctrine. I hope I can be impartial. Our Universe is fascinating and possibly multidimensional; we know a lot about it, but not all (who understands consciousness?). Perhaps it may hold an ultimate meaning. That is far as I would go, but Asher is very much more positive and is worth listening to.

The book's initial chapters are concerned with issues in theology and science, and the fallacies, misconceptions and factual distortions in creationism and intelligent design. For Asher (and for me), natural selection is the driving force behind biodiversity on this planet, and in the central part of this book, he illustrates this with several case histories from the vertebrate fossil record. These incontrovertibly illustrate descent with modification through natural selection, and the astonishing plasticity of evolving life. These are excitingly written and could be read for interest without reference to the overall context. Thus we learn of the origin of mammals and are given a succinct description of how the redundant posterior jawbones of mammal-like reptiles became incorporated into the inner mammalian ear. Although this is an old story, it is told here with freshness and verve, as is the newer evidence for late precursors of the mammals having lactated. Likewise, the origin and evolution of elephants and other proboscideans, starting with fox-sized precursors, is finely documented here.

But the newest of the case histories is that of the whales. In the aptly titled chapter "Whales are no fluke", Asher discusses the development of knowledge, based on sound anatomy, with roots in the early to mid-20th century, but developing especially since the early 1990s. Whales originated from artiodactyls (hoofed mammals) and there are great numbers of transitional links to prove it. If you want a good account of it, then read it here. But it is not just anatomy and geological history that are invoked in elucidating such evolutionary series. It is also genetics. For, as described in the following chapters, the vast database on genetics is fully concordant with evidence derived from palaeontology, as set out beautifully and at length here. Yes, a few surprises turned up, but most cleared up uncertainties in any case.

If, then, the evidence for evolutionary change is incontrovertible, why do creationists shrink from it? Asher proposes: "The reason creationist, anti-Darwin claims continue to be made, despite decades of rebuttal dating back to the 1860s, probably has to do with the threat perceived in Darwinian evolution to morality and ethics by certain groups in society that tend to be religious." This is a critical issue; I agree entirely, but perhaps this point could have been more strongly developed.

This excellent book may not convince the creationists, nor in a different respect will it convince Dawkins. But the message is, surely, that an evolutionary biologist does not have to be a militant atheist. Asher is a good scientist and writer, and a religious man. I only wish I had space to discuss further dimensions of his book here. So, I recommend that you read it instead.

Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Palaeontologist

By Robert J. Asher. Cambridge University Press. 324pp, £15.99. ISBN 9780521193832. Published 23 February 2012

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